"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." So says Matthew 5:5 in The Good Book. Gary Eaker may not have plans to rule the earth, but he does believe there is something to say for reining in the old ego. That's why you won't catch him bragging about his role in one of the most surprising successes since a certain Spam-sponsored car took the checkers in the Daytona 500. (That would be Derrike Cope's win in 1990, for all you younger fans.)
Eaker (pronounced Aker), you see, has built and successfully operates a wind tunnel-an arena normally reserved for conglomerates and multinationals such as Lockheed Martin and General Motors. Until Eaker came on the scene, wind tunnels simply weren't considered feasible unless you enjoyed the luxury of a national-defense contract in your hip pocket or a working budget the size of a small country's gross domestic product. But Eaker, a long-time aero engineer for both GM and Hendrick Motorsports, made a successful go at building a tunnel in the heart of stock car country by liberally substituting ingenuity in place of stacks of cash.
Born and raised in Flint, Michigan, Eaker calls himself a car nut by the grace of geography (Flint's borders virtually butt against Detroit's) and an engineer by birth. "You don't go to college to become an engineer," he says. "In my opinion, you go to college to become a better engineer. I think you can spot a future engineer as a child because he'd rather take things apart and put them back together again than mess with crayons and glue. That's what I did."
As a university student, Eaker says he was attracted to the avenues of engineering where you could see your work. Electrical engineering, for example, didn't interest him because, as he says, you have to have faith that there is actually electricity flowing through the chips and boards you have designed. Engines became his specialty because of the visceral feedback of fuel burning and hard metal moving. When he graduated in 1976, he went to work for GM on an experimental engine project.
Unfortunately, that program came to an end shortly after Eaker signed on, and he soon found himself about to be reassigned. Management gave him a handful of projects as options where he might like to work next, and interestingly, one was at the company's wind tunnel. At the time, there were hundreds of engineers specializing in engines at GM and less than a dozen working full time in aerodynamics. It was in the emerging science of aerodynamics that Eaker felt he might have the greatest influence. "So here I go," he laughs, "into a branch of engineering that requires even more faith than electrical engineering! You can't see air, and its effect can be even more difficult to measure than electricity. At first it seemed totally opposite of what I enjoyed."
But that was only the first of several moves that would ultimately lead Eaker into his role of one of stock car racing's preeminent aero engineers. About the same time he joined the wind tunnel team in 1977, GM decided it would be best if its engineers specialized in one area of the company's product line. "Of course, all the red-blooded males got in line for the Corvette, Camaro, and Firebird lines," Eaker says. "Others went for the compacts because they were the most flexible with the designs and the most interesting aerodynamically. The most boring cars were the family cars-the Caprices and the LeSabers. I considered myself a team player, and I decided to let the other guys fight over those programs. The family cars are GM's bread and butter, and that's where I thought I could have the greatest effect, so I volunteered for it. Of course, since nobody else wanted it, that's what I got."
Cup ConnectionEaker's "meekness," however, had an unexpected benefit. One of the first race cars to go into the tunnel was a NASCAR Winston Cup Series stock car-a Pontiac Grand Prix, as a matter-of-fact. And since it shared the same body as Eaker's "bread-and-butter" passenger cars, he was given the project. The next race car to go to the tunnel for aero tweaking was a Monte Carlo, and Eaker again got the work. Soon, the man who had sacrificed himself for GM's greater good was known as the company's racing aero specialist and in charge of any fendered race car, from stock cars to funny cars (another person had the Indy Car program).
Eaker worked in GM's wind tunnel from 1977 until 1994, and from 1984 on he was in charge of all of GM's special projects. During that time he helped NASCAR develop measures to keep cars from experiencing the dreaded "aero-lift" when spinning at high speeds. They included extended rocker skirts to keep air from getting under the right side of the cars, recessed right-side windows, and even the now-ubiquitous roof flaps. On other fronts, he developed body-side air deflectors for Top Fuel dragsters that help reduce drag caused by the steamroller-sized rear tires, and he co-designed, built, and drove a Pontiac Trans Am that set an '89 Bonneville class speed record at 293 mph.
Meanwhile, the popularity of NASCAR was continuing to grow, and the racing budgets were keeping pace. More and more Chevy and Pontiac teams were finding it necessary to make regular trips to GM's wind tunnel in Michigan to work with Eaker and search for that elusive aero edge. Eventually, the powers-that-be at Hendrick Motorsports decided the organization needed its own aero engineer to guide its then three-car Cup effort. Having worked with Eaker many times over the years, Eddie Dickerson, the leader of Hendrick Motorsports' chassis and body department, made the GM racing specialist his top priority for the hire. After putting in more than 15 years at GM, Eaker was hesitant to ditch it all and sign up with a race team, but when Hendrick Motorsports flew him and his wife down for a visit to the complex in Concord, North Carolina, he was sold.
Eaker joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1994, relocated his family from Michigan to North Carolina, and immediately began making trips back to Michigan to work in the GM wind tunnel. "I became their worst customer," he says with a laugh. "Since I knew how everything worked there, I knew when they told me they couldn't do something if what they really meant was they just didn't want to."
Eaker stayed with Hendrick Motorsports through the end of 2001, and during that time the organization won all five of its Cup championships. "Hendrick Motorsports was such a fantastic organization, I believe they would have won all those championships whether I was there or not," Eaker says in his usual self-effacing manner. "But I hope I made some contributions that made it a little bit easier."
Despite all the success, Eaker decided in March 2001 that it was time to leave when his contract expired at the end of the year. Earlier, there had been talk of HMS building its own wind tunnel, but with so many changes going on in that organization, the timing for such a large undertaking just wasn't right. Eaker, however, felt the time was ripe for a full-scale wind tunnel in Mooresville, North Carolina-a central location that is just minutes from 80 percent of the nation's top stock car racing teams. A scale-model wind tunnel had already opened in the area with good success, and Eaker felt a full-scale unit wouldn't be far behind. If he didn't do it, somebody else would.
Reducing CostsThe problem, of course, is that wind tunnels aren't cheap. In order to reduce the cost of construction from stratospheric to reasonable levels, Eaker had to improvise. Fortunately, his experience as an aerodynamicist allowed him to do all the design work himself. One of the most important characteristics of the design is that although Eaker's tunnel fits full-scale race cars, it is actually quite small. Most tunnels are a closed circuit, cycling the moving air through a loop over and over again. Eaker's design is an open circuit. The tunnel fully eliminates three-fourths of the traditional tunnel; instead of a circle, it is a straight line. Air is sucked in one end and exits out the other end approximately 150 feet away. A smaller tunnel means less construction costs, fewer maintenance costs, and a smaller building to house the tunnel.
Other unique design features are the 22 fans stacked in a precise alignment to move the air through the tunnel. Before Eaker built his tunnel, the accepted thinking was that a wind tunnel required a single, gigantic fan in order to move air through a tunnel in a consistent, linear manner. But giant fans of the quality and power required for wind-tunnel work cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of accepting conventional wisdom, Eaker devised a layout using readily available fans that can move the air as efficiently without breaking the bank. The fans are actually placed at the end of the tunnel and pull, not push, the air through it. As the air enters the large opening in the tunnel, it is only travelling approximately 30 mph. The tunnel funnels the air down into a smaller area so that when it reaches the testing area of the tunnel, it is travelling 130 miles per hour. The tunnel opens back up so that when the air reaches the fans, it has slowed back to just over 30 mph. After the air exits, it is still trapped inside the building that houses the tunnel and simply makes its way back to the tunnel's entrance at a stately 10 mph.
Not only did Eaker design the wind tunnel himself, he very nearly built it himself. Early on, he and a few employees, working in his garage, cut panels for the tunnel's intricate floor. When they ran out of space, they moved to a 25x25-foot building in a self-storage facility. The wooden ribs that hold all the panels in place all required custom cuts because of the specific curves that make up the tunnel's interior walls-they were all cut by Eaker's minister, who is an amateur woodworker, in his workshop. Finally, Eaker wrote all the complicated software that tracks all six possible forces on a car (drag, downforce, side force, roll, pitch, and yaw). A lot of the design for the tunnel is unconventional, but it works. "I don't know how most people build wind tunnels," Eaker says. "I just knew how we had to build ours to make the most of our available resources."
Now operating as the Aerodyn Wind Tunnel, Eaker's operation is working at near capacity two shifts per day. Race teams sign up for the day session, which requires booking the facility for 10 hours (7 a.m. until 5 p.m.) at $1,250 an hour. A second, evening shift is also available (from 6 p.m. until midnight or through 4 a.m., depending on a particular team's needs) to meet demand. A staff of at least three technicians is on hand to assist the race team, which typically will send between three and six crewmen, to test. Eaker's team will set up the car in the tunnel and run the facility, but they will not offer any advice on what changes will help or hurt a car's aero characteristics. "It's the only way we can avoid any appearance that we are giving away information we may have learned during another team's test," Eaker explains. "We will help a team test anything they want. We're here to run the tunnel for them, but we won't give away information."
Sitting in his office with the dull hum of the wind tunnel blowing in the background, Eaker is eager to talk about all the people who pitched in to help make his tunnel a reality, how great his small staff of employees is, and how much fun it is to work in racing. But what you won't get him to do is brag about his achievements. It is the meek, after all, who receive the richest rewards. Instead of spending his time talking about what he's done, he'd rather spend his time reading the secrets written in the wind.
The Stationary "Rolling Road"Under each aluminum strip in the floor is a slot for either blowing or sucking air underneath the car. This movement of air adds energy underneath the chassis to simulate the effect of asphalt moving underneath, which allows aero engineers to make a much more realistic simulation of how air flowing all around a race car affects it. The fact that this rolling road is now stable allows for rollers underneath the tires to spin the wheels to match the speed of the air blowing past.
One of the most important factors for accurate wind-tunnel readings is to mimic the characteristics of a car moving across a racetrack or road surface. Spinning tires and the asphalt moving underneath the car have a significant effect on a car's aero characteristics. This is easy to achieve with a scale tunnel because the test models are smaller and typically can be supported with a strut suspended from the ceiling. A large belt can be spun underneath the car to simulate a moving surface.
The same effect is infinitely more difficult with a full-scale tunnel. You cannot effectively suspend a fullsize car in order to spin a large belt underneath it. Eaker's solution was to devise a system of slots in the floor that alternately blow air into the tunnel and suck it back out. The same amount of air that is blown in is sucked out, so the net effect is only to add the energy of moving air underneath the car but not change the volume of air (which can upset the aero effects). This creates the effect of a "rolling road" on a flat, stable surface.
The stable surface is key, because now Eaker can also add rollers under each of the four tires to spin them at the appropriate speed. Tests in the Aerodyne tunnel are usually done with the wind speed at 130 mph, so the wheels and tires are spun to match that speed. The rollers are mounted on moving panels in order for the car to be rotated a few degrees, so the air hits the car from an angle and not head-on. This is important so race engineers can see how a car will react when entering a turn. Eaker's stationary rolling road was the first of its kind in operation when Aerodyn opened for business in 2002.-Theo James