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How carbon fiber helps make NHRA Drag Racing the fastest sport on Earth

In the quest to be the quickest on Earth, man and machine share a common building block: carbon fiber.
27 Jan 2019
Posted by NHRA.com staff
Carbon Fiber

Stronger, lighter, faster: Those are the principles of speed. Whether you start with 11 or 11,000 horsepower, removing mass makes fast objects accelerate faster. Though the fundamentals of lightweights are simple, how engineers create lightness may not be. To make a lightweight race car part, you don’t start with the lightest material available. You start with the strongest material and then you use as little of it as possible. Carbon fiber has become common in drag racing because its strength-to-weight ratio makes it perfect for race cars.

The Origins

The first creation of carbon fibers is credited to Thomas Edison in 1879. Edison didn’t use carbon fiber to create race car parts — though he was best friends with Henry Ford. Edison used carbon fiber as a filament material for the incandescent light bulb.

The modern era of carbon fiber began in 1956 at a Union Carbide lab in Ohio where Dr. Roger Bacon created carbon “straws” or fibers while melting graphite. These fibers were 1/10th the diameter of a human hair yet strong enough to be formed into shapes. Though Dr. Bacon would go on to produce carbon fibers that had 10 times the tensile strength of steel, these carbon fibers were incredibly difficult and costly to manufacture.

The Promise of Carbon-Fiber

  • Incredibly stiff
  • Excellent at handling tension
  • Less likely to fatigue and corrode than most metals
  • 70 percent lighter than steel
  • 40 percent lighter than aluminum
  • 35 percent lighter than magnesium
  • Gentler on other parts it attaches to due to less mass
  • Raw material is workable into many different shapes, aiding in prototype work
  • Conducts electricity
  • Can be tuned
  • Vibration dampening characteristics